Category Archives: Cognitive science

Teaching pupils how to revise

For some time now I’ve been interested in how cognitive science findings can be used to improve teaching and learning in the classroom.  Whilst this has shaped what I currently do in the classroom, until now I’ve never shared this information with my pupils.  This is mainly because I’ve been unsure how to communicate this simply to pupils.

Then last year I discovered the Learning Scientists.  They produce lots of free materials (from videos to bookmarks) that turn the latest cognitive science into simple explanations of how to study effectively.  So after asking one of my year 11 classes if anyone had ever taught them how to revise for exams (to which there was a resounding ‘no!’) I decided to use the Learning Scientists resources to do this.

If you look at the Learning Scientists website you’ll see they talk about 6 different study strategies.  I didn’t want to overwhelm my pupils by going over all 6 strategies so I decided to go over what I thought were the two most important: retrieval practice (aka quizzing) and spaced practice.  I also wanted to give my pupils some activities to put the strategies into practice.

To help my pupils see the effectiveness of retrieval practice I decided to give them a short quiz on a Chemistry topic they all did badly in in the last mock, ethanol production.  They did the quiz, followed by some retrieval practice exercises, before trying the quiz again.

All students could answer more questions and in more detail after the retrieval practice exercises.  And most importantly, all pupils had enjoyed the activities and felt that the strategy had been effective in helping them to learn.

Now I know there are problems with giving the students the same questions twice and that although they could answer more second time round this doesn’t prove they learned more and won’t forget the information.  However I wasn’t doing a research study here, just trying to get my pupils to buy in to the technique so they will hopefully use it outside of lessons.

The retrieval practice exercises were very straight forward.  I let the pupils choose whether they wanted to quiz themselves (by using the cover-write-check method or with flashcards they made) or each other (either with flashcards they made or just making questions up using the information sheet).

I’m a big fan of flashcards, and they certainly helped me throughout my degree course.  Interestingly at my school there is a big push for pupils to create ‘revision cards’, which are short content summaries.  So I asked my pupils if they made or used them.  Almost everyone put their hand up.  Then when I asked them how they used them, almost every pupil said they read them.

I (briefly!) talked about how to use flashcards, that they are much more effective when you create them with a question on one side, the answer on the other and actually try to answer the question fully before looking at the answer.  I also described how they could also put their cards into three piles (cards they could answer fully, cards they could partially answer and cards they couldn’t answer) and that they needed to quiz themselves more on the last two piles than the first (although I stressed that they still needed to quiz themselves with cards they could previously answer so they didn’t forget the information, just not as much as the others).

Going forward I want to try to incorporate retrieval practice into my lessons regularly.  Making flashcards and quizzing each other could be a good plenary activity.  And if done regularly, when it comes to revision time pupils will already have made their flashcards with which to quiz themselves.

It’s important to note that one or two pupils in the classes I did this with didn’t like it.  One girl said to me ‘people learn in different ways and this won’t work for me’.  This resistance could be because creating questions from information  (either to ask verbally or for flashcards) is harder than just copying information.  However it could also be that some pupils believe that they have a certain learning style.

I think the best response to this is that quizzing can be done in different ways; on your own, with others, using the cover-write-check method, using flashcards, answering questions (verbally or written) from the revision guide or past papers, redrawing from memory mindmaps and diagrams, etc.  So once pupils have tested out all the different quizzing methods (and have given them a good go) they can use the method which best suits them.

Below are links to the files I used for the lesson.  Feel free to download and use.


How can I simply implement cognitive science findings to improve learning?

Over the last year I’ve read three books which have made me think deeply about cognitive science and how to improve learning – (i) The Hidden Lives of Learners (ii) Make it Stick (iii) Why Don’t Students Like School? Two very good summaries of the principles in these books can be found here and here.

For me, the most important principles from these books are:

  1. Students should meet any concept at least three different times for it to pass into long-term memory.
  2. Instruction and practice of a concept should be interleaved with a different (but not totally unrelated) concept. So instead of teaching topic 1 followed by topic 2, teach them ‘together’ (i.e. teach one or two lessons on the first topic then switch to topic 2, etc). This point also suggests that concepts that are very similar (e.g. mean, mode and median or conduction, convection and radiation) should not be taught together.
  3. Distributed (or spaced) practice – instead of practicing a skill during a single large block of time (massed practice, aka cramming) distribute the time spent practicing over a longer duration.
  4. The Testing effect – students learn more from regular low-stakes testing, whether that’s self testing (by using flash cards, etc), being tested by peers or testing in the classroom. So in a pattern of ‘study, test, test, final test’ students learn more than by following a ‘study, study, study, final test’ pattern.

All of this is great, but a little overwhelming. How can I simply implement these suggestions without having to re-plan the entire curriculum or adding excessively to my already substantial workload? Below are some suggestions based on what I’ve been trying in my classroom recently.

  • Using starters to review knowledge and skills from previous lessons by students answering a series of questions, drawing and labeling a diagram, or some other activity. Often I’ll ask students to answer questions from topics that we studied not just from the last lesson but from the last few months to make sure that they can remember the key content. If students can’t remember how to do something they can ask the other pupils on their table for help. This combines low-stakes testing with distributed practice.
  • If consecutive lessons in a unit will teach cognitively similar concepts (e.g. conduction, convection and radiation) then mix up the order of the lessons so these are separated by another not so similar concept.
  • Use quizzing regularly (once a week or every two weeks). This is a longer set of questions to what I’d use in a starter (approx 20-25 instead of 4-6). I almost always use multiple choice questions. This is ideal to set as homework and can easily be electronically marked by using systems such as Google Forms and Flubaroo or Quick Key. Not only does this make use of the testing effect but it also allows you to assess students learning against individual concepts. Again, I ask questions not just from recent lessons but from two or more months ago to aid retention of key content.

Sources of multiple choice questions

As you see above, I’m advocating using multiple choice questions. However where can you get good quality questions from? Below are the sources I’ve used.

  1. It might sound obvious, but search Google for your topic and add ‘multiple choice questions’. So far I’ve been able to find some questions for every topic I’ve searched for on the net.
  2. The tests on the BBC Bitesize website.
  3. Make your own – I’d recommend that for every lesson you write 2 or 3 questions that assess the learning against the learning outcomes that you can use later on. See this blog post for some guidance on writing good multiple choice questions.
  4. Get students to create their own (e.g during plenaries, revision sessions or for homework). Students can be supported with a questioning grid. Something I plan to introduce is Peerwise, which allows students to compete with each other in writing multiple choice questions.

If you teach maths you can use the Diagnostic Questions (DQ) website, created by Craig Barton and his team. It’s a free tool that allows teachers to share and download multiple choice questions and allows students to answer them online. Recently it’s been opened up to allow questions for other subjects to be created, and at the time of writing there are a few hundred Science and MFL questions.

A really nice feature of the DQ website is that if students answer questions on the website they can add a sentence to two to explain their reasoning, and you as the teacher can review that. Students can also look at the explanations of other students for correctly answered questions.

However one disadvantage of the DQ website is that questions are created, stored and downloaded as images only. So if you want to export the questions to a Word document, Google Form or other program, you have to type them out. This is a real shame because you can’t easily edit or adapt a question. Multiple choice questions can be modified in several ways, including turning them into two-tier questions and confidence grids, so the inability to do this easily is very disappointing. A good York Science publication about this can be found at the following link – Developing formative assessment in practice.